The Joys of Distraction


Every year I am approached by parents (and team manager on a membership drive) shuttling a young teenager towards the jumps areas. Their mission is to give their son or daughter a few tips prior to the school competitive season. The usual banter recounts how they seemed to do well at the school event and are now heading for a regional meet; can I help? I ask when the big event is… ‘This Friday’ is a typical response. I am very clear in saying that I can help with ensuring safety and a measured approach, perhaps a central cue…all of which will help performance. After that, if they really enjoy the event they can come out and participate with the group in order to gain more experience. Most of the time, these young athletes are never seen again. If I do see them, it’s as if we have to start all over again. Retention of movements, measurements and sensations did not last much beyond that one event.

It reminds me of cramming for a math or chemistry exam…pull an all-nighter in the hopes of getting a better mark. To an extent it might work, but eventually catches up with you as schooling proceeds. It must be frustrating for facts-based educators to find that students forget or can’t seem to retrieve knowledge from the previous year. A part of the semester is spent in review so that the coursework can proceed.

When I was younger the way to learn how to do events in athletics (or skills like a free-throw) was to do the event over and over again until you got it right, a bit like playing musical scales for hours. So my high jump ritual was to start with a low bar, raise it up slowly until there were three misses, and then start over. In truth, I embraced the notion with passion. I was a work-horse. I would do dozens of hurdle drills and jumps, and then run home to grab my javelin and take it to the park for dozens of throws… (something the local police didn’t approve of). Like my maths, I rationalised that if I did enough reps I would get better and better. And I did improve dramatically, until the inevitable plateau and chronic injuries came on the scene. At the time I might have been labelled a ‘junior talent’.

As a coach I still see variations of event cramming and block training that moves from generic to specific every year that leaves me with the feelings I had as an athlete decades ago = there must be a better way. The worst case scenarios are quite painful for me to see, probably because I tried them all… The despair of hitting a plateau or enduring chronic injuries can create a ravenous hunger for remedies. ‘I must, I must…’ becomes the driving mantra. More repetitions, harder intervals, mock competitions, sneaky training, additional sessions, and expert consultations. Most of these options cannot work and many are destructive.

At the same time, at the same school, a group of pole vaulters was developing. They seemed to take to this dynamic event easily. They laughed a lot. Everyone assumed that this was a group of ‘natural athletes’ who had come together all at once. I knew that almost all of them had been high level ice-hockey players who suddenly found that their dreams of being professionals were not to be as they were cut from squads. They were very good at being athletic however. Ice Hockey, like Soccer and Basketball has an element of unpredictability to it. The good athletes train to move when things go well and when they go very wrong. A common feature in areas where these sports dominate is that there is a street version that is played endlessly from young ages. Basic rules and an opportunity to learn every move possible: at speed, without having to think. Copy one another and imitate heroes. Develop a signature style. With street versions you do not stand in line waiting to perform the same move again and again. At the time I sensed that this group of young pole vaulters were able to do things almost automatically that I would have had to repeat hundreds of times before feeling confident, but I couldn’t see how they did it.

My experience with an alternate approach (but no light bulb) came a bit later with a group of high jumpers of varying abilities and ages. The traditional approach of bar up, bar back down was our way of doing intervals. It was all we knew. We improved up to our plateau levels then no more, and injuries began to emerge… Boredom introduced a new way of thinking. During the warm up phase we began to insert what we called goofy jumps. We would jump from the opposite side, use the dominant side with the non-dominant leg and have competitions using outmoded styles. This aspect began to grow and we needed more variations. So, a bit of creativity led to the creation of a game of following the previous jumper who waved in the air or some such. We would count backwards from 21 while running. Try a hopping high jump. Close your eyes in the last three strides…The list went on. This playful activity did several things. We all improved, and we improved in all the jumps and sprints. We attracted other athletes who wanted to join in and also contribute. And, it quickly filtered out those who were willing to experiment with technique at speed versus those who were one-trick ponies capable of only one mode of jumping.

For years I did not realise what a gem of a learning strategy that experience had been. We were just having fun. The pole vault group, all those athletes who grow up with street versions and those who pursue activities with uncertainty built in (tennis and snowboarding as examples) do not go out and consciously apply effective learning mechanisms. Events like the High Jump have a high degree of precision as part of performance. By doing hundreds of goofy takeoffs we were training the body to be precise in terms of its timing and power within a finger snap of time. No thinking allowed. Further, the mixing of styles in with the real jump forced our brains to create multiple strategies and apply automatic responses. Today, as a coach, I can typically demonstrate drills off either foot, change arm actions and apply variations with only minimal mental prompting as a result of those times. To retain that bank of information for decades, be able to retrieve it in a flash and even build upon it with new moves is pretty good evidence of an effective learning mechanism.

I am known for the hundreds of variations of leaping, bounding and hopping I use as part of regular preparation for power-speed performance. The athletes who use the programme designs are fed a regular diet of movement skills that seem to have little in common with their performance goals. I must stress however, that selections for a microcycle are not thrown down on a page like a collection of cards that land face up after being thrown in the air. The key skills need to be there and never leave the programme. Bracketing them with variations, a couple of new moves and postural variants make the body and brain work very hard to create strategies and reactive skill sets. The fatigue they sense at the end of a session is very much brain with some body depletion.

An example of a variation can be seen with hopscotch rhythms: a two-legged to one-legged skill. A new move might be to give each landing an emphasis on height. Can the athletes do this in a continuous flow? Can they repeat the moves when depleted from more dynamic landings? As a coach I need to have this assurance. Unstable landings, stop-start rhythms, lurching, heaving, freezing and simply bailing out are indicators of what will happen in the real arena of performance. Faulty patterns and imbalances cannot be corrected during performances or during event cramming and mock competition situations. And the athletes? Within a few efforts most can master and then build on a new movement skill. This gives them a special confidence; an inner confidence that allows them to shut the conscious brain off to let the body do what it does best: move.

For the future: does this style of mixed training have a place as a developmental approach to performance? Will coaches and athletes accept that introducing disruptions and distractions from the main task are actually better ways to absorb and then recover learned skills? In our society, systems that for hundreds of years have rewarded diligence, hard work, focused repetition and nose to the grindstone are tough to shake. Today, even when confronted with direct evidence to the contrary most people will choose cramming and endless repetition as a valid, if not better way to progress and achieve success in sport. As I look at it with my Coach Educator hat on I see a split: 20% will be highly resistant or avoidant, 20% will embrace the idea wholeheartedly and 60% will be very sceptical and need convincing. The implications and challenges of this split are vast and go well beyond sport. Just think of it… would the public media prefer to hear that a champion high jumper credit their success to playing with goofy jumps and having fun, or crawling out of gym sessions, upchucking their lunch and having jump sessions that left the legs twitching and cramped? Time will tell…

J. Erik Little